To an American brown liquor drinker, it may take a moment to fully grasp the concept behind a company like Compass Box. We tend to be conditioned, as imbibers of bourbon and rye, to think of distilleries as one-stop producers, agers, marketers and vendors of spirit brands, but that’s not necessarily the way things work outside the U.S. The U.K. market for malt whisky has always historically been reliant upon many dozens of distilleries to provide the components for classic blends, but even in the world of single malt whiskies, blending is still an important art form. Nor does one need a distillery of their own to be a major force within the whisky industry.
That’s Compass Box, in a nutshell: An independent blending and bottling company—their preferred term is simply “whiskymakers”—that sources malt and grain whiskies from all over the U.K. to produce fascinating single malts and blends that are sometimes reflective of the traditions of a city or region, and sometimes purposeful deviations from what might be expected. They cater to all kinds of consumer tastes, releasing malts for every kind of whisky drinker. Enjoy sherried single malts? Check out Compass Box The Story of the Spaniard. Love the distinctive spice of French oak? The Spice Tree is probably for you. Hung up on intensely smoky Islay drams? You’ll be wanting Compass Box The Peat Monster. And so on, and so forth.
The newest series of special releases from Compass Box, on the other hand, is built around a bit more of an esoteric concept, meant to tackle malt whisky misconceptions and dispel them, or educate drinkers on aspects of scotch’s complexity. Titled Myths & Legends, it’s a series of three simply titled (1, 2 and 3) bottles that commands some fairly premium pricing—$150 for each of them—but promises unique experiences in each case. All three are bottled at 46% Abv (92 proof), and are in fairly limited release (between 4,394 and 4,564 bottles). We were able to snag samples of all three, so let’s get right into it.
The first bottle in the Myths & Legends series is built to highlight the complexities generated by blending different casks of the same single-malt whisky—in this case from a Northern Highland distillery, although the origin point of course isn’t named. Compass Box writes the following:
It may surprise some, but blending is as crucial to the creation of single malts as it is to blended whisky. Myths & Legends I highlights the extent to which individual casks are often unreliable authorities for the style of whisky made at a distillery; it is by blending casks together that a fuller picture of distillery character can emerge.
On the nose, Myths & Legends 1 certainly isn’t lacking in fruity complexity, to the point that it almost sort of overwhelmed me—like, I know I’m getting fruit, but it was surprisingly difficult to pin down precise notes. Pineapple and tropical fruit seem to be there, as well as baking spice notes, but they’re also met by a slightly more savory/earthy element that has a slightly tobacco leaf quality.
On the palate, however, Myths & Legends 1 becomes more distinct, especially for the fact of just how sweet this one turns out to be. This is a syrupy dram, with lots and LOTS of dark honey, pineapple juice, caramel, some earth and something that reminded me of cream soda/orange creamsicle. Over time, I also increasingly get more malty toastiness and malt sweetness, but in general this one is just quite sweet and rich overall; perhaps a bit more than I typically seek out. After tasting all three, this one still felt like the biggest question mark to me.
The second in this series hails from Speyside, but Compass Box immediately goes out of its way in the marketing copy to stress that this shouldn’t lead to a presumption of its flavor profile. Rather, Myths & Legends II is apparently meant to bust down the expectations that are inherent to the idea of the classic scotch whisky regions. As they put it:
Myths & Legends II blends together malt whiskies of different ages from a single Speyside distillery. We wish to show how process matters more than provenance when it comes to the flavours of single malts. In addition to the aromas of tropical fruits and butterscotch you will also discover subtle savoury notes and spiciness. The distinctive profile has nothing to do with “Speyside”; process decisions made at the distillery, the effects of maturation, and our own choices regarding the balance of the final blend determine the whisky’s quality and character. Clues to a whisky’s flavour lie in the glass and not the distillery’s region.
On the nose, I found this one to be lovely and bright, with a pronounced vanilla bean element and fruit that was considerably brighter in its presentation than Myths & Legends I, leaning toward apricot-like stone fruit notes. The nose still suggests sweetness, but in a way that seems less “sugary” to me than the first entry in the series.
On the palate, this definitely seems like the more lithe and nimble of the first two whiskies, with a zesty citrus quality and notes of both tropical and stone fruit. However, it also has a stronger earthy quality on the palate than Myths & Legends I as well, which I appreciate by way of balance, with a creamy texture that is also quite nice. Residual sweetness seems a bit more moderate than the richness of the first release, making Myths & Legends II perhaps my favorite of the three.
The third and final in the Myths & Legends series is meant to show once again how the addition of another element can transform a whisky you’ve already tasted. To do so, Compass Box is simply taking the malts that make up Myths & Legends II and adding several, more peated influences to them. Essentially, they island/Islay-fied it. As they put it:
For Myths & Legends III we have taken some of the same parcels of malt whisky used in Myths & Legends II and added peated malt whiskies from a pair of celebrated island distilleries. Some would object to our actions on principle. Famous single malts are always too precious for blending, they say; the sanctity of the category seems to take precedence over quality. However, thanks to our parcels of well-regarded malt whiskies, the tropical fruit and butterscotch notes of Myths & Legends II are now further enriched by a deep and enchantingly aromatic smoke profile.
On the nose, it’s immediately clear that they didn’t just take the existing malt and carpet-bomb it with heavy peat and smoke. Myths & Legends III is indeed more subtle on the peaty aromatics than some fans would likely be expecting, although I appreciate that they approached it with a degree of judiciousness. Wisps of smoke accent the zesty citrus and tropical qualities of Myths & Legends II—you might call it the “memory of smoke”—in a way that won’t be reminding you of Laphroaig anytime soon. It also seems to accentuate the caramel/butterscotch quality of Myths & Legends II, making those elements a bit more pronounced on the nose, while the fruit retreats a bit.
On the palate, it is likewise lighter of body and less sweet/rich than Myths & Legends I, and its smoke/peat elements come out in somewhat greater force than on the nose. Both sour and sweet smoky impressions also have the unexpected quality of drawing more attention to the oak here than in any of the other entries, but all in all it’s a pretty smoothly integrated combination of stone fruit, citrus, butterscotch and smoke.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.